Zaatari Camp, Jordan — “We know the camp’s problems because we live here,” says 19-year-old Mohamad Heraki, outside of a tent hosting a photography workshop.
Heraki is part of a growing team of journalists based in the Zaatari refugee camp who produce the camp’s only magazine, The Road. Launched in May 2014 by the Japanese Emergency NGO (JEN), The Road consists of a team of approximately 70 young Syrian reporters and designers, all of whom live in the camp.
Twenty thousand Arabic copies of the monthly publication are distributed free of charge throughout the camp, and English copies are handed out to the various aid organizations working there as well.
Since the camp officially opened in July 2012, dozens of journalists from around the world have reported on Zaatari, and images from the sprawling desert complex have been shared widely on social media. The Road, however, gives agency to the camp’s actual inhabitants to share their own stories, currently estimated to be more than 79,000.
“We want the magazine to be from Syrians, for Syrians,” said Hada Sarhan, 55, The Road’s editor-in-chief.
A Jordanian journalist with 30 years of experience, Sarhan has seen the magazine grow from a group of eager but unexperienced youth wanting to share their personal stories to journalists tackling the camp’s most pressing issues.
“They once called me in the middle of the night to tell me about a fire that had broken out in the camp, asking how to cover it. They have the journalism instinct now,” Sarhan said.
Workshops hosted by a number of organizations within the camp have trained The Road’s team in journalism basics and photography. Alongside journalism skills, the magazine offers a space for the Zaatari youth to socialize and explore topics they are passionate about.
Mufida Al-Masri, 30, fled to Jordan three years ago with her two children after her husband was killed in Syria. She now writes for The Road, focusing mostly on women’s issues within the camp.
“I struggled a lot here, trying to raise my two children, but we need to grow,”Al-Masri said. “What really encourages us to be journalists are our surroundings in the camp.”
Her colleague, 17-year-old Zaad Al-Khayr, nods in agreement. Still in high school, Al-Khayr says the biggest issues women face in Zaatari Camp are early marriage, and discontinuing their education because of overcrowded schools or conservative societal pressures.
“We know better what the struggles are,” said Al-Khayr. “We know our own pain.”
The magazine’s popularity has spread throughout the camp, which according to Sarhan has no other internal publications. However, the publication’s sustainability is threatened due to insufficient funding. The funding currently provided by UNICEF will end soon, and the magazine’s team are volunteers, with many working other jobs to support themselves.
“They tell me we do not just need bread and food, we need some one to talk to us, to address us intellectually,” said Sarhan. “They tell me they want to go back to Syria and not start from below zero, but to have learned something during their time here.”
Another issue The Road faces is censorship. Before it is published, each issue must be sent to and approved by the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate (SRAD), the official Jordanian administration managing and monitoring the camp with UNHCR. Articles and even poems have been omitted by SRAD, especially those relating to the issue of child labor, said Sarhan.
“Sometimes the electricity is cut off. There is polluted water, many difficult things, but we can’t talk about it here. They present themselves as providing for the refugees, so how am I supposed to say there is no electricity? It’s forbidden,” said Sarhan. “It’s always sunshine and brightness here.”
Censorship does not always come from official sources. The Road has faced much criticism from imams within the camp, who have even tried to stop the magazine from being distributed around mosques.
“Each magazine issue, an imam calls us,” said Sarhan. “An imam once sent me a photo of magazine copies piled in a garbage can.”
The attendees of the photography workshop in the next-door tent start to walk out, practicing their newly learned skills on a shared camera. Sarhan turns to join them and says that she plans on launching a women’s issues magazine in February.
“The ladies are getting more daring,” she said. “In the beginning we never had workshops like this, with the men and women attending together.”
Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati